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Scott Anderson   My First Meeting With Craig Cuny  
 
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  My first meeting with Craig Cuny in the summer of 1995 was a bit peculiar. For one thing, he had just returned to Texas after having spent two-and-a-half months on the battlefield of Chechnya searching for his missing father and was about to go back. I imagine the last thing he wanted to do with the little R&R time left him was talk with some journalist. Secondly, the hotel that I had checked into in Dallas was hosting a huge regional sales convention for Mary Kaye Cosmetics. On the afternoon Craig showed up to meet with me, there were about forty-seven pink Cadillacs in the parking lot and the hotel lobby was filled with extravagantly-dressed middle-aged women with big hair, Stepford Wife smiles, and name tags that all seemed to end with 'i': Tammi, Candi, Sherri...

"Wow, this is kind of creepy," Craig said, looking about the room, "how'd you end up here?"

A rather embarrassing question to put to someone who, after all, was supposed to be an investigative journalist--I obviously hadn't done an awful lot of investigation in deciding where to stay--but I did what all seasoned journalists do in such situations.

"It's my editor's fault," I explained. "They always screw things up."

In late June 1995, I had been approached by the New York Times Magazine to write an article on Craig's father, Fred Cuny, a world-renowned disaster relief expert from Texas who had disappeared in Chechnya with three companions in early April. For nearly two months, a remarkable array of searchers had been scouring the war zone at the southern tip of Russia for some sign of the lost group: American Embassy personnel, CIA and FBI agents, Russian intelligence officers, along with members of Fred Cuny's family. Both President Clinton and Russian President Yeltsin had become personally involved in the search for answers, and the American Ambassador to Russia had set up a special task force to coordinate the effort. Despite it all, no clear answers had emerged. Instead, a thousand conspiracy theories had bloomed: that the group had been murdered by Russian intelligence agents, that they were alive and being held for ransom, that Cuny was a CIA agent and had gone underground to assist the Chechen rebels in their war effort.

My original assignment for the Times was to write a profile of Fred and his remarkable achievements, and in early July I went to Texas to interview a number of his colleagues and family members. It was at my meeting with Craig amid the Mary Kaye convention that I started to expand far beyond this assignment and decided to go to Chechnya myself to search for clues. Part of the motive was the obvious journalistic one--the ongoing manhunt in Chechnya was a fascinating story--but as I would also eventually realize, a huge part of it was the fairly instant friendship I developed with Craig.

I think what first struck me about him was his extraordinary thoughtfulness. At the end of our interview, he asked if I had anything planned that evening; when I said no, he invited me to join him and a bunch of his friends at a Dallas nightclub. Here was a guy who, having just spent ten weeks in one of the most hellish places on earth looking for his missing father, was having one last get-together with friends before returning to it, but who still wanted to make sure that someone he had just met (a journalist, no less!) had a good time. I, of course, immediately accepted--the prospect of whiling away the evening at the hotel bar with the Tammis and Pammis of Mary Kaye was simply too frightening--and over the course of that evening discovered that, along with being extremely thoughtful, Craig Cuny was also very funny, and a hell of a lot of fun to hang out with. When I returned to New York, I convinced my editor at the Times that, to get this story right, I simply had to go to Chechnya and join Craig in his search.

That plan did not work out for, just before I was to join the search team in Chechnya, their headquarters was attacked by masked gunmen and Craig and the others forced to abandon the manhunt. Instead, I went to Chechnya on my own shortly after.

I'd been to a number of war zones before in my life, but I had never been in one as terrifying as Chechnya. For three weeks, I and my companions--a photographer and an interpreter--travelled over the battlefield looking for clues into the disappearance of Fred Cuny's group, and those three weeks felt like three years; I couldn't imagine how Craig had endured it for nearly four months.

When I got back to New York, I was so rattled by my experiences in Chechnya that I found I couldn't talk about it with friends, let alone try to organize my thoughts enough to write the article. After a week of fruitlessly pacing my apartment, I decided to seek out the one person who would know what I was going through, and hopped on a plane to Texas. Craig met me at the airport with a big smile and a cooler full of chilled beer (apparently it's the law in Texas that you must drive with an open container of alcohol) and we set off for a long, aimless drive in the countryside.

"So how was it?" he asked after a while.

"Bad," I said.

He nodded, and that was all either one of us said about Chechnya over the next five days I spent there. In an odd way, that silence was exactly what I needed.

After I finally did write the article, and then set about to write this book, there were a lot more trips to Texas--maybe a dozen in all over two years. Ostensibly, these sojourns were to conduct further research for the book, but most quickly degenerated into extended parties and road trips with Craig (my editor at Doubleday isn't going to read this, is he?). They tended to follow a distinct pattern. I'd arrive in Dallas with my tape-recorder and a whole packet of cassettes and the first thing I'd say to Craig was:
"Okay, man, no more bullshit; this time, I'm going to sit you down and get your whole story--your childhood, the search in Chechnya, everything."

And Craig would nod, agree that it was high time we did just that, then casually mention that he'd heard of a great party going on in a little town just three hundred miles to the west, or that maybe it'd be good if we went down to Mexico to unwind for a few days. "Then we can sit down and do the interview."

I'd ponder this for a minute, look dubious. "Well, all right," I'd finally say, "but this time I'm serious"--and a week or ten days later, I'd fly back to New York, the interview completely forgotten.

Not forgotten, actually. I eventually realized there was a very good reason why I consistently shied away from doing The Interview. Craig had become one of my closest friends, and I didn't want to jeopardize that. Above all, I didn't want him to feel that I was somehow maintaining the friendship as a pretext for wheedling information out of him. I'd become friendly with different story "sources" in the past, but never to this degree and never with such high-stakes involved--after all, I was writing a book about the murder of his father--and the easiest way I found to deal with all that was to not deal with it. When we were together we talked about girls or sports or football, very rarely about what had happened in Chechnya and always then at Craig's instigation. These occasions invariably came very late at night when we were driving around somewhere or sitting on his houseboat outside Austin, and they never lasted very long.

Ultimately, I think it worked out for the best on both accounts. Because of my reluctance to get Craig to open up more (I finally did The Interview by telephone, which I think was more comfortable for both of us), I probably talked with a lot more people who knew Fred than I otherwise would have--and ended up with a much more rounded portrait of him. At the same time, I think that reluctance helped keep our friendship unfettered; we spent a Christmas together, I bought his old pickup truck, I was in his wedding party. The one time I can recall worrying that a strain might develop between us was when I sent him an advance copy of the book. While a favorable portrait of his father overall, I do say some rather critical things about him, and I was kind of dreading what Craig's reaction would be.

"Looks real good, buddy," Craig said, calling late one night, "I think you really got him." Then we immediately moved on to other things, started spinning plans for another road-trip to Mexico, maybe just keep going all the way to Argentina.

 
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Copyright © 1999 Scott Anderson.

Photo credit © Peter Svensson